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Historic commission postpones Robert E. Lee decision

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last month, the Austin Independent School District voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary school, which currently honors a Confederate general from the Civil War. Although renaming issues persist, the concern has largely been resolved. However, at the request of a group of Austinites, the Historic Landmark Commission considered at its Monday meeting whether the school should be zoned historic. It’s a move that could complicate efforts to eliminate Lee’s name from the building entirely.

In the end, commissioners opted unanimously not to initiate a historic zoning case, choosing instead to postpone the case until June in order for staff and the school district to craft a memorandum of understanding about any potential changes to the building, with the agreement that no such changes will be made until that memorandum is established. Commissioner Terri Myers was recused.

AISD staff attorney Jamie Turner explained that the district is in the process of changing the name of the school. A vote on the name change is scheduled to take place on May 23. The trustees have yet to take any formal action stating whether they would oppose or support the historic zoning case. However, Turner did propose that the commission suspend its consideration during the renaming process, as the signage on the building would “of course” be changed.

“We’ve got two governing boards here that are potentially dealing with an issue that may impede the other body from acting,” said Turner. Although AISD could move forward with the name change, if the building were to be zoned historic, any change in signage would require the city’s approval.

Advocates for historic preservation have proposed, as a “compromise,” that signage on the northeast corner of the property – which is not original to the building – could bear the new name of the school. However, they maintain that the building’s original signage, which says “Robert E. Lee,” is integral to the building’s historic significance.

Speakers at the meeting warned that Austin is well on its way to living in an Orwellian nightmare where the past has been rewritten, and they noted that places like Germany have elected to preserve all aspects of history, regardless of how unsavory they might be. In all, 170 people signed a petition in support of historic preservation, citing worries that the debate over the school’s name threatened the art deco signage. On Monday night, about a dozen of those signees spoke.

Caroline Roberts said she represented a group of community members who believe the Robert E. Lee building should be preserved as a historic landmark. She said the building is a “remarkable example” of 1930s art deco architecture – including the sign with the original name.

“There are many buildings in Austin that have been defaced. I do not want this to happen to the Robert E. Lee school building,” said Roberts. “Children should be able to learn from the experiences of the past and engage in the present to make a difference in the world.”

Angela Temple also spoke in favor of the historic designation and urged the commission “to take immediate action to protect Lee Elementary in its entirety.”

“At this very moment, designs are being proposed for new signage on this school. This will detract from the original design and result in the loss of a character-defining feature,” said Temple. “The fact that Lee has historic importance is quite clear: The writing is literally on the wall, in bronze.”

Temple emphasized the community value as well as the historic and architectural significance of the building, which was designed by architect Roy L. Thomas, completed in 1939 and funded by the federal Works Progress Administration.

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